Investing in Abilities week raises awareness of disabilities on campus

Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 31, 2010

Students and other members of the University community came together last week to celebrate veterans and the armed forces as they observed “Investing in Ability Week,” organized by the Council for Disability Concerns.

The series of events — called “HonorABLE: Celebrating all Veterans, Those With and Without Disabilities” — began last Monday. The events ranged from film screenings to lectures by veterans that addressed a wide range of topics, like the role of service dogs in disability aid and the obstacles faced by disabled persons in the classroom setting.

After hearing about the numerous issues faced by Army veterans, Anna Ercoli-Schnitzer, disabilities librarian and member of the CFDC, said she was moved to propose the military theme.

“I was inspired by someone in the military who opened my eyes to some of the problems,” she said. “And so I suggested that we honor the military this week.”

During the week, the dedication of the James Edward Knox Adaptive Technology Computing Center was held. Knox — who worked at the University for more than 30 years developing computer technology helpful to disabled students — passed away on July 4, 2010, prompting officials to rename the center in his honor.

The Council also hosted speakers with disabilities and panels of medical specialists to promote awareness about conditions like traumatic brain injury and cerebral palsy.

Schnitzer said Investing in Ability week is an important tradition because people often fail to recognize the high rates of disability.

“People with disabilities are part of the largest minority in the world,” Schnitzer said. “They say one out of five people in Ann Arbor has a disability.”

She added that people with disabilities are a huge part of the University community and, contrary to what some may believe, they play a major role in contributing to its vibrancy.

“Disabilities — I prefer the word differences but you have to say disabilities so people know what you’re talking about — are a big part of diversity,” Schnitzer said.

The week culminated on Friday in an intimate 10 a.m. breakfast presentation of the James T. Neubacher Award, which took place in the fourth-floor assembly hall of the Rackham building with an audience of nearly 100 people.

The ceremony also included the presentation of the Wesley Smith Scholarship and Saul and Shirley Lederer Scholarship to LSA junior Brooke Suskin.

In addition, 19 University community members were awarded CFDC certificates of appreciation for activism in disability. Their activism ranged from disabilities in sports to making ATMs more accessible for disabled people.

During the presentation, CDFC Chair Jack Bernard — who's also an assistant general counsel and a professor at the University — said it was important to present these awards because people often lose sight of what is moral and correct in terms of disabled people.

“At times we succumb to the story we see in movies and television that might make it right,” he said. “And that’s not necessarily a good story.”

Bernard told the audience, which included the parents and sister of James Neubacher, that the award is a good way to celebrate activism, because it is named for a University alum who fought for equal rights for people with disabilities in his column in the Detroit Free Press.

The award is presented each year to an individual who demonstrates extreme effort to improve the lives of disabled people.

“Each year we celebrate James Neubacher because of his willingness to speak,” Bernard said.

Prof. Barbara Kornblau, dean of the School of Health Professions and Studies at the University’s Flint campus, received the Neubacher Award this year for her work as a consultant to Congress to include and improve health benefits for disabled people in the new government health care overhaul.

In accepting the award, Kornblau attributed her activism in the field to the values she learned from her parents.

“I’m here today because I was raised by parents who instilled in me a profound sense of ethics, morals and social justice,” she said.

She explained that she went to an unusual elementary school populated by some disabled people, and when some parents protested the presence of those students, her mother led a protest against them.

Kornblau said when she transferred to junior high school, those students, and the friends she had made, were no longer present.

“The junior high school had steps and the students in wheelchairs couldn’t get in to that school,” she said. “Those steps might as well have been mountains.”

Throughout her presentation, she detailed her triumphant actions against disability prejudice, such as Rosa’s Law, which took language offensive to disabled people out of Maryland’s state statutes.

“I hope to go back to Washington to focus on more advocacy,” she said.

The ceremony was followed by a 7:30 p.m. wheelchair basketball game held at Saline High School and featuring a pre-game national anthem performance by the 338th Army Band and the Army Color Guard. There was also a dance team performance at halftime.

In addition to the award presented to Kornblau, LSA junior Samantha Hamroff received a CFDC certificate of appreciation for her work to raise awareness about celiac disease by hosting gluten-free benefit dinners at various restaurants to raise money for the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University.

Hamroff said the most important factor in addressing her disease is making people more aware of it.

“The more people know about it, the more they understand it and the more respectful they are of it,” she said.

She added that a similar message can be conveyed by other people with any type of disability.

“If people know more about disabilities they can accommodate (disabled persons) and make sure they’re comfortable,” she said.

Schnitzer agreed, adding that she hoped the week would offer a message to students about increased awareness of disability and the necessity of social action.

“Raising consciousness about disabilities is important,” she said.